She was born on July 17, 1935 in the Bronx, New York to John Johnson and Mabel (Faulk). Her mother was nurse while her father was a New York City subway conductor. Carroll grew up in Harlem. She attended Art High School and with her parent’s support, enrolled in dance, singing and modeling classes.
At the age of 15, she was already modeling for Ebony. After High school, she did attend New York University, majoring in sociology but left without graduating to pursue a show-business career with a promise to her family that she would return to college if the career did not materialize after 2 years.
At 18, her big break came when she appeared as a contestant on the DuMont Television Network program, Chance of a Lifetime and soon followed engagements at Manhattan’s Café Society and Latin Quarter nightclubs. She debuted in films with a supporting role in Carmen Jones (1954) and that same year, she also starred in the Broadway musical, House of Flowers. In 1962, she won the Tony Award for best actress for portraying Barbara Woodruff in the musical, No Strings. It was the first time for a black woman to win this award. 12 years later, she was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress for her starring role alongside James Earl Jones in the film Claudine (1974).
She also became the first African-American actress to star in her own television series who did not play a domestic worker, for her titular role in the critically acclaimed television series Julia (1968). That role won her the Golden Globe Award for “Best Actress in a Television Series” and was also nominated for an Emmy Award in 1969. She is also remembered for portraying an iconic role of a rich, glamorous and stony diva Dominique Deveraux in 1980s successful show, Dynasty. For this role, she is famously known to have said, “I want to be the first black bitch on television.” Then in 1989, she received her third Emmy nomination for the recurring role of Marion Gilbert in A Different World. She appeared in the television medical drama Grey’s Anatomy (2006), for which she received a Prime Time Emmy nomination.
About her personal life and relationships, much of it was revealed in her memoir The Legs Are the Last to Go (2008).
She was married four times. She had a daughter, Suzanne Kay Bamford, with her first husband, record producer Monte Kay. Their marriage ended in 1962. She later dated and was engaged to British television host and producer David Frost from 1970 until 1973. In 1973, she married Las Vegas boutique owner Fred Glusman but divorced that same year since he was reportedly physically abusive. On May 25, 1975, she married Robert DeLeo, a managing director of Jet magazine who, according to sources, spent large amount of her money. But he died in a car crash two years later. Her fourth marriage with singer Vic Damond in 1987 ended with a final divorce in 1996 after a series of separation and reconciliation. In 2013, she was present on stage for the 65th Primetime Emmy Awards, to briefly speak about being the first African American nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award.
She was a breast cancer survivor and an activist, who frequently spoke of the need for early detection and prevention for the disease. She was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 1997 and underwent nine weeks of radiation therapy and had been clear since. She served as ambassador and national spokeswoman for Lifetime Television’s breast cancer awareness campaign in 1998-1999. In 2010, she was featured in UniGlobe Entertainment’s breast cancer docudrama titled 1 a Minute. She was also a founding member of the Celebrity Action Council, a volunteer group of celebrity women who served the women’s outreach of the Los Angeles Mission, working with women in rehabilitation from problems with alcohol, drugs, or prostitution.
She died of cancer on October 4, 2019, in Los Angeles, aged 84. She is survived by her daughter and two grandchildren. She featured in numerous successful films and series during her lifelong career and received accolades for her excellent performances. She was an Oscar-nominated actress, a singer, model and an activist. She was Diahann Carroll.